The head of Germany’s disease control agency has said the country is heading for a “very bad Christmas season” if drastic measures are not taken to dampen the spread of coronavirus.
Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), said that even if measures were taken Germany faced a period of “extremely dismal days” during which hundreds of people would die out of those currently infected.
The RKI reported about 65,000 new infections on Thursday, the ninth day in a row that a record for the pandemic has been set. Wieler said the true figure was likely to be at least two or three times as high.
He suggested Germany could increase its vaccination rate, including of booster doses, ban large gatherings and reduce social contacts. He also recommended the closure of indoor venues such as bars and nightclubs.
Tighter regional regulations have been introduced across the country in recent days, the most extreme of which limit access to non-essential facilities such as restaurants or fitness centres to people who are vaccinated or can prove they have recovered from the disease. In addition to the documentation, people will have to show a negative test result.
In neighbouring Austria, the hardest-hit areas of Upper Austria and Salzburg were preparing for a full-scale lockdown and the government was facing growing calls to extend the move nationally, having introduced a lockdown for just the unvaccinated on Monday. Austria has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, at 66%.
On Thursday Angela Merkel and the heads of Germany’s 16 states agreed to introduce a vaccine mandate for workers in care homes and hospitals. The Bundestag approved legislation requiring people to show proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative Covid test for workplaces and public transport.
The measures were put forward by the three parties likely to make up the next government, who decided against extending the legal framework introduced 20 months ago that allowed the federal government to be able to take nationwide action to deal with the pandemic. Instead, Germany’s 16 states will have the power to introduce new protective measures.
Critics of the new regulation, led by the conservatives (CDU/CSU) of Merkel’s outgoing government, said it amounted to a reduction in restrictions, would create a confusing hotchpotch of rules and would give the impression that the virus was under control.
The vote was seen as the first big test of the three-way administration’s ability to manage the pandemic when it comes into office next month. In a heated parliamentary debate, the outgoing government was accused of taking its hands off the wheel, particularly over vaccine promotion.
Some members of the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) were unable to sit in the main hall of the Bundestag and were required to sit in the public gallery instead as they have refused to show their vaccine or recovery documents or to undergo tests.
Merkel called the situation “dramatic” earlier in the week, saying the fourth wave was “hitting our country with full force”.
The rise in cases is put down to a combination of factors including Germany’s vaccine rate of less than 68%, a sluggish booster jab campaign, the Delta variant of the virus and an expeditious return to normal social mixing, as well as to a lack of staff in hospitals, which has led to fewer beds being available on intensive care wards.
Swift administration of vaccines to give half of Germans a booster jab by Christmas would mean administering 5.6m doses a week. Under current circumstances, including a lack of vaccine centres, this is viewed as unrealistic.
Wieler said ICU units were already close to being overwhelmed, and people needing to be given emergency medical treatment after car accidents, heart attacks and strokes were no longer guaranteed the level of care that would normally be available.
“People who won’t get a vaccine need to know this,” he said, adding that 15 million German adults remained unvaccinated. He said those who were being admitted to ICU were far more likely to be unvaccinated and increasingly likely to have to be put on an artificial lung, seen as a last-resort measure. They were also having to stay longer on average compared with earlier in the pandemic, owing to an increase in severity of the disease.
“We have never been so unsettled as we are now,” he said. “We’re really facing a very bad Christmas season if we don’t do something about it.”
On Thursday the vaccine advisory body Stiko recommended booster jabs for everyone over the age of 18, to be administered six months or less after their last dose.
The health ministry said it expected that 9.2 million children between the ages of five and 11 could receive vaccinations before Christmas if, as expected, the Pfizer/BioNTech jab is given approval for that age group from regulatory authorities in the EU and Germany in the coming days.